Welcome Rasmus Nielsen (UniversityofOxford), and Host Benjamin Kallos (KallosConsulting)

[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]

Ground Wars: Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns

Ground Wars by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen is an essential new bible for political campaigns locked in the everlasting battle that has become modern American politics.

This book is useful for everyone from a neophyte about to join their first campaign to career campaign operatives and consultants. Neophytes will gain a broad overview of exactly what to expect on their first campaign, with the benefit of having their upcoming experience framed within the broader picture of politics. Career campaign operatives and consultants will appreciate the book’s focus on the “ground war” as an essential component of the modern campaign, as well as the historical background on how we got here, which many of them will have experienced firsthand. In the short time Nielsen spent embedded in campaigns and in authoring this book, he has managed uncover and write about what few who live and work in politics are even aware of.

Readers will come away from this book with a deep understanding of:

Who is involved in campaigns and what to expect from their involvement;

The emergence of personalized political communication;

The use of people as the medium for personal political communication and the various techniques and workflows relating to each attempted, successful or failed interaction;

A detailed picture of how campaigns are organized, how the various components interact and why;

The tools used in targeting voters, who uses them, what they provide and the broader picture behind the tools and how they were developed; and

The effect of personalize political communication, what to expect in the future and ultimate thoughts on for whom and when it can be truly effective

In addressing the above, Nielsen’s focus is on investigating “personalized communication in political campaigns” that consists of canvassing and phone banking activities by volunteers, and paid full and part time staff, which most refer to as the “ground war” from which the book takes its title. Most who have been involved in a campaign have heard it described using the single word “field” or, finally, the word made famous by our current President: “organizing.”

The book begins with Nielsen as an observer-volunteer on the 2008 Democratic Congressional campaigns of Jim Himes in Connecticut and Linda Stender in New Jersey, where his experiences are easily generalized using colorful stories in each chapter to illustrate the kind of classic situations on the campaign trail that I have seen and experienced myself, and that readers are likely to see themselves no matter the campaign they work on.

These examples serve as an ongoing reference point as Nielsen analyzes the political communications methodologies with such depth and academic rigor that he even cites Erving Goffman’s Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. These analyses are set forth with sufficient explanation that the text could easily be used in a political communications course at any university.

The scope expands further from the 2008 Congressional races as Nielsen examines the re-emergence of the ground game from its previous heights in the seventies, to its recent spike following the new millennium. This larger treatment provides background for changes in how campaigns are run, such as the effect of changes to federal campaign finance laws like McCain-Feingold and court decisions such as Citizens United. It also provides rare insight into the national leadership and its decision making over time around investments made in personalized political communications, from software like voterfiles to infrastructure for mobilizing, like Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy.

As a working political consultant who has helped coordinate field campaigns to oust incumbents, built his own voter file, and as a current candidate for New York City Council, I felt as if this book was written just for me. It is a refreshing reminder of what is in store for me in the coming months. With my undergraduate degree in communication and rhetoric I appreciated the academic context and the rigorous research that went into this text, so that it is much more than one might expect in the form of the typical campaign war stories and post-win or loss navel contemplation that too many often afford themselves. The historical context made me chuckle as I am able to look back with fondness for the challenges that we’ve overcome, and smile with how far we’ve come today. I hope you enjoy this book as much as I did.

88 Responses to “FDL Book Salon Welcomes Rasmus Nielsen, Ground Wars: Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns”

BevW March 18th, 2012 at 1:51 pm

Rasmus, Ben, Welcome to the Lake.

Ben, Thank you for Hosting today’s Book Salon.

[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen March 18th, 2012 at 1:59 pm
In response to BevW @ 1

Bev, thanks for having us, Ben, thanks for hosting this. I’m looking forward to the discussion.

dakine01 March 18th, 2012 at 2:01 pm

Good afternoon Rasmus and Benjamin and welcome to FDL this afternoon.

Rasmus, I have not read your book so forgive me please if you address this in there but why does it seem that often the paid campaign operatives will either barely tolerate the volunteers or totally ignore the role the volunteers might have played as soon as the election is complete?

Cynthia Kouril March 18th, 2012 at 2:01 pm

Rasmus, Welcome to the Lake. Ben, glad to see we fianlly got you to graduate from lurker to full out participant.

Benjamin Kallos March 18th, 2012 at 2:03 pm
In response to BevW @ 1

Rasmus, thank you for joining us.

Benjamin Kallos March 18th, 2012 at 2:04 pm

First question, how did you choose Linda Stender and Jim Himes and how was the commute between campaigns?

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen March 18th, 2012 at 2:05 pm
In response to dakine01 @ 3

Hello dakine01–in my view, there are several reasons people often get this experience.

First, the “barely tolerate” part–many staffers feel they are under intense time pressure, and basically would just like volunteers to do as they are told, i.e., knock on doors and make calls. Volunteers generally want a bit more than that, and also often-sometimes rightly-have views about how things should be done at a more tactical and strategic level. Busy staffers have limited patience with this, and it generates a lot of friction.

Second, the “ignoring” part–some staffers will try to build a network of people they have worked with in the past in a locale, but many of them are moving on, to other jobs outside politics (or grad school), or to some other area or state for another campaign, and don’t keep in touch. Also, they’ll often want to take credit for victories themselves, rather than credit particular volunteers.

Cynthia Kouril March 18th, 2012 at 2:05 pm

Ben and I were kinda lucky in that we both belong the New York Democratic Lawyers Council and as such were in on the ground floor so to speak when the VAN was being built and the 50 state strategy [waving at Gov Dean] was being put together.In fact, Ben probably knows more about it than I do, because he actually understands computers and I believe spent sme time with the Technology working group.

For those FDL readers who didn’t get to watch this develope, maybe Rasmus would like to give them a quick history of how the VAN was born?

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen March 18th, 2012 at 2:06 pm
In response to Benjamin Kallos @ 6

Hi Ben, thanks for this–I was living in New York City when I did the research for the book. I wanted to follow congressional races that were (a) competitive and (b) that I could get to easily from NYC by train/bus. That left me less than a handful of districts to chose from, so when both Stender and Himes and their respective campaign managers allowed me in on their campaigns, I stuck with these two, my original choices.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen March 18th, 2012 at 2:09 pm
In response to Cynthia Kouril @ 8

Hi Cynthia, thanks for this–

About VAN, a number of high-level operatives in and around the Democratic party had worked on rationalizing and centralizing the party’s data efforts to improve fundraising, voter contact targeting and in some cases voter registration and the like. Previous efforts on McAuliffe had (despite some enthusiastic early coverage) largely failed to achieve what the GOP had been able to built already, so after Dean took over at the DNC, he started over and helped put together the political support, technical expertise, and raw mass of data that became today’s VAN.

Benjamin Kallos March 18th, 2012 at 2:09 pm

Rasmus, your book opens on the eve of the Election Night party where Linda Stender would ultimately discover she lost. Why did you chose to spend election night with the losing Linda Stender campaign instead of the victorious Jim Himes camppaign?

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen March 18th, 2012 at 2:13 pm

Ha! If ever I need a reminder of how opaque politics can be, I’ll just have to think of this decision. I spent ten months following these two campaigns. I got to know the people involved, and basically wanted to see them win. On election day, I had to chose. Frankly, I thought Stender would squeak by and that Himes might very well lose, so I headed to New Jersey. As it turned out, Stender lost by about 25,000 and Himes won by 12,000… So much for me as an election forecaster. I was not the only one, however–I called one Himes staffer on election night, after Chris Shays (the GOP incumbent) had conceded. The Himes staffer in question said he had “this sick feeling inside”, and that he said it all was a “Dewey-defeats-Truman”-type mistake.

Benjamin Kallos March 18th, 2012 at 2:13 pm

Dakine01, Following up on “ignoring,” Rasmus is right about operatives “moving on.” One of the interesting questions to ask campaign operatives is where they are from and where they are going. Many operatives jump from campaign to campaign. Beyond that, while volunteers may perceive operatives as having authority, few have the authority they need to provide the kind of recognition that volunteers usually deserve. The sign of a well run campaign is often how volunteers feel afterwards. But remember there are a multitude more volunteers than there are staff and there is of course only one candidate.

Benjamin Kallos March 18th, 2012 at 2:15 pm

To follow up on Cynthia Kouril’s question, it seems that much of the background you provide on historical campaign assemblages and even the development of voter tools, is not information you can just find in newspapers or on the Internet using general search terms. How much of what you wrote would you say primarily came from some of the top operatives with who shared confidences with you, that you ultimately found secondary sources for, and how much did you find through plain and simple academic research in the library?

Teddy Partridge March 18th, 2012 at 2:16 pm

Hello to you both and thanks for joining us today for FDL Book Salon.

I’m going to set my views of Jim Himes to the side to focus on the book. But first, I’d like to say I admire any of the professionals who worked on his campaign. How you managed to get progressive Democrats to pay into and work for the election of a Goldman Sachs alum — well, it’s very impressive. I didn’t know until long after his election, to which I donated from afar, about that part of his resume. So — good electioneering!


I’m a campaign consumer. I’m the target audience for the outputs described in this book. I am the recipient of the Ground Wars’ incoming. While I understand your book is perhaps primarily aimed at the participants in the campaign ground wars, I wonder (often) if there is anybody in modern campaigns who understands my perspective.

By which I mean: is there someone working for Martin Heinrich today who understands that my solo donation in 2006 to his Congressional campaign doesn’t merit a USPS money demand every six weeks now that he’s running for Senate? Is there someone in Jim Himes’ campaign who understands that receiving a family-photo Xmas card every year only reminds me of his alignment with Connecticut’s insurance industry since his election, and that my non-donation since his election is a sign of that?

Is there someone on Team Elizabeth who thinks I need twice-weekly email asks for money simply because I signed up to support Warren early on?

I wonder if anyone considers our plight, the inbox-owner.


Rasmus Kleis Nielsen March 18th, 2012 at 2:17 pm

Ben, you are right, this is a very important point.

A lot of junior staffers are what sociologists call “street-level bureaucrats”, struck between on the one hand higher-ups who impose one set of demands on them, and on the other hand the people they interact with–on campaigns volunteers, paid canvassers, and voters–who have other expectations.

It is not always easy to find the right balance between these different sets of demands and expectations. Generally, senior staffers want quantity–numbers of knocks, of calls, of “bodies”, but volunteers and others don’t want to be treated like “bodies”, they want a qualitative experience of being part of something, and not all staffers manage create an environment that gives them that feeling.

Cynthia Kouril March 18th, 2012 at 2:20 pm

Of course, just like the military, political parties are always trying to refight the last war instead of proactively getting ready for the next war.

Now that turfcutter has been all but perfected, and I say that as someone who has spent part of each of the last 3 weekends out door knocking for Shelly Mayer’s special elction up in Yonkers, I almost feel like it may be obsolete already.

I think of how OWS can turn people out on a dime with twitter.In a way, twitter is like the old “do me a favor” post cards candidates used to have locals mail to their neighbors.

Do you think that social media will render phone banking and doorknocking obsolete?

Also, I understand why something as labor intensive as micro targetting works when you have a campaign like Obama 2008, when you a oodles of people fired up and lookig for some way, any way, to be apart of the movement.

For ordinary races, where the candidate instead relies on paid canvassers, do you think the camapaign gets as much “bang” out of the paid cnavassers? They obvioously don’t bring the same level of infectious enthusiam to the gig.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen March 18th, 2012 at 2:20 pm

Hi Teddy,

Thanks for joining.

I think your experience is very important–of course personally for you, but also because it illustrates in a broader sense that despite the ever more detailed and massive amounts of quantitative data available to campaigns to target voters for contacts and potential supporters for donations, quantitative targeting is done on the basis of statistical analysis and as such is probabilistic and no better than the models and data involves.

And those models and that data makes few allowances for being disappointed with the choices that people make, one vote for one Democrat, one donation for another Democrat, will almost always be weighed as evidence that more votes and more donations may be forthcoming. Hence the letters you get…

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen March 18th, 2012 at 2:24 pm
In response to Cynthia Kouril @ 17

Cynthia, lot’s of important stuff here, a few basic reactions–

First, no, I don’t think social media will make door knocking and the like obsolete. With regards to OSW, I’m very skeptical of claims that this is mostly social media-driven, like I generally am of claims of “Twitter revolutions” and the like. Social media are part of the mix, but only a part. A lot of this is good old organizing plus new technologies, not good old organizing replaced by new technologies.

Second, on targeting, volunteering, and “ordinary campaigns”. Fundamentally, all campaigns need to get out the vote. No matter how well one does in the polls, you are not going to win if people do not vote. That’s the most important part of the ground war, getting out the vote, and whether that is done (expensively and less effectively) with paid people, of (cheaper and more effectively) with volunteers, it needs to be targeted and organized to get the maximum impact.

Benjamin Kallos March 18th, 2012 at 2:29 pm

To follow up, on Rasmus, another answer to your question is Hanlon’s Razor, “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” In his book Rasmus, explains a bit of the background behind how the Democratic party started to get “organized” building technology like the VAN and infra-structure like Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy, but at the end of the day, each campaign is on its own doing its best to organize.

Campaign operatives identifying a universe of 25,000 – 50,000 likely voters or donors are going to use obvious behavorial “proof” like donation or voting history.

The good news Teddy is that yes, the fact that you haven’t given again is being considered. If you were a regular donor you would probably be getting personal phone calls from the campaigns or candidates.

One organization to be aware of is the “National Political Do Not Contact Registry” at http://stoppoliticalcalls.org/index.php the group is a response to your concerns. The reality though is that results may vary.

I’ve been told by some top operatives “you know your candidate will win when phonebanking recipients start threatening to call the cops if they get another call.” The reality is that even after such a threat the voter is still probably going to get a GOTV call on Election Day.

BevW March 18th, 2012 at 2:29 pm

Is there a push-back for the “inbox owner” to let the campaigns know they are not interested? Like a do-not-call list?

I receive all the GOP / Republican flyers in the mail, and get many robo-calls from the State and Local GOP races – I have never registered or voted Republican in Virgina.

Kelly Canfield March 18th, 2012 at 2:31 pm

Greetings and thanks for being here today. I’ll echo Teddy’s point of the “plight of the inbox owner.”

Here’s one from just hours ago:

Friend –

At this point you probably know about Dinner with Barack and how cool it is, so I will spare you.

However, since the campaign is picking the third guest in just a few hours, and, assuming it won’t be me, I will say one thing:

If you win, fantastic. To be honest, what I really care about is the campaign’s budget — thanks to you and everyone who pitches in, we’re able to open new field offices, hire more organizers across the country, and in places like Virginia, Colorado, and Arizona, lay the groundwork for the biggest grassroots campaign these states have ever seen.

That’s why you should donate $3 or whatever you can today to be automatically entered to have dinner with President Obama.

First it’s not “personalized” even though the campaign can when it wants to. There’s a serious lack of consistency there.

Next, it’s completely tone deaf not to mention ineffective subject line. “I’ll spare you.”

Third, this same campaign project is bragging about having selected a “lifelong republican” as one of the winners. That is a huge turnoff to actual, you know, Democrats.


Cynthia Kouril March 18th, 2012 at 2:33 pm

I think there is more to it than that. Paid campaign operatives like quanifiable matrices because win or lose they have to have something about this campaign to put on their resume. So, even if their candidate lost in a huge landslide, they will still be able to put “recruited trained and deployed GOTV effort that accomplished 4.75 contacts per targetted voter in the span of 5 weeks”

or some similar “achivement”. Also, they often come from outside the area and don’t really know the local lay of the land.

I remember a congressional race on LI run by a friend of mine. He brought in a campaign pro from outside LI. The Campaign manager wanted to keep DCCC happy b/c that would convey “legitimacy” on the candidate. Nevermind that every single issue that our guy had that resonated with local voters got nixed by Rahm. The campaign got so watered down that veteran political types around here, not least the candidates county leg chief of staff were beside outselves.

naturally this guy lost.

Afterwards, the campaign manager, to his everlasting credit, said that if he had known the district at the begiining the way he knew at the end, he would have done exactly what the local suggested and told Rahm to mind his own business, it’s not like DCCC gave a gamechanging amount of $.

That CM has been back to other races on LI, because not he “gets” the mind set out here.

My point being, helicoptering in “professionals”, who are often barely out of college and have minimal life experience, has it’s own pitfalls. Pissing off volunteers is high on that list.

Actually, one of hte things both the Dean campaign and the 2008 Obama campaign did really well, was making volunteers feel both valuable and valued

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen March 18th, 2012 at 2:33 pm

Good point–stupidity is a harsh word, to put it a bit differently, a lot of this stuff is really, really hard to do in practice, and frequently oversold in gee-whiz stories in the media about how campaigns know everything about you etc.

A concrete example of the complications that arise along the way–what does one do with all the people who’ve crossed party lines in the GOP primary? We are people, so we can understand the qualitative motivations of individual people who voted for, say, Santorum, to create trouble for the Republicans, but it’s a lot harder to model it quantitatively and it will make voter targeting work for the general election a bit harder.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen March 18th, 2012 at 2:36 pm
In response to Kelly Canfield @ 22

Hi Kelly,

Thanks, that’s a really good example of the limitations of how this is actually practiced. Again, we hear a lot about tailored messages and the like, but thought things are sliced-and-diced and you probably got a different pitch from some other groups, there are limits to how fine-grained this gets.

On “personalization”, my use of this is ever so slightly idiosyncratic (hey, I’m an academic, we sometimes make words do extra work for us). For me, “personalized communication” is about people serving as media, that is, live interaction. Me knocking on your door, me calling you on the phone, me live-chatting with you and the rest of FDL community–that’s personalized communication. An email blast is not, even when tailored to some of the demographic/political data a campaign may have on you.

Benjamin Kallos March 18th, 2012 at 2:38 pm

As we start to get into the weeds on “why do campaigns do what they do,” it seems that much of the background you provide on historical campaign assemblages and even the development of voter tools, is not information you can just find in newspapers or on the Internet using general search terms.

How much of what you wrote would you say primarily came from some of the top operatives with who shared confidences with you, that you ultimately found secondary sources for, and how much did you find through plain and simple academic research in the library?

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen March 18th, 2012 at 2:39 pm
In response to Cynthia Kouril @ 23

Cynthia, I agree.

There’s a lot of goal displacement going on in campaigns. The primary goal is to win to advance a political agenda. But that’s big and hard to deal with, so instead one set out a vote goal, a target universe, a list of benchmarks for number of contacts.

These are measurable, and they are goals, but they are not the same as the primary goal.

And before long, people are oriented towards achieving their formal, often quantitative, goals–this or that number of knocks or calls–rather than winning and furthering some cause.

It happens in many organizations, I think most of us will have met it in our work life. It is particularly jarring when it happens in campaigns that are supposed to be more about principle than many other areas of life.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen March 18th, 2012 at 2:43 pm

There are two sides to this, I’d say–one is the historical reconstruction of how field has developed in the 1980s and 1990s, and the history of the VAN and the Demzilla debacle before it that Cynthia also brought up. The other is the everyday work practices in the campaigns.

For the history, I triangulated between background interviews with operatives from the party, private consultants, and data vendors, plus a couple of experienced activists. I also drew on newspapers, esp. the NYT and WP, where a few reporters do amazing background pieces, Tom Edsall is one who used to do this. Third, there are more specialized publications like Roll Call, Campaigns and Elections etc. With enough time in a library and the benefit of hindsight, a lot of these things come together nicely when one can also get people to talk…

For the everyday work practices, there is no substitute for actually being there on the ground, working with the people involved. Interviews helped a lot on background, and there is the odd article here and there that gives a bit of info, but fundamentally, to understand campaigns, I think you have to spent time with them. I feel like I’ve only started, and I spent ten months and took copious notes.

dakine01 March 18th, 2012 at 2:44 pm

rather than winning and furthering some cause.

rather like the old joke “the operation was a success but the patient died

Teddy Partridge March 18th, 2012 at 2:44 pm

So, then — there isn’t somebody in the Campaign Communications department who says, “Hey, this guy (Teddy) gave $n when we ran against and defeated Shays, but not since. He’s even written a letter about the Congressman’s position on XYZ. Maybe it’s time to tailor a pitch around what might be wrong? Or remove him from the pitch lists for a while?”

I just wonder how much of the vaunted tech is used to measure inbound communication or non-response rather than presuming “once-a-donor, always” (which is how we did things in campaigns in the 1970s). I’m just not sure campaigns look too much more modern from the consumers’ point of view despite all the bells and whistles candidates pay for.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen March 18th, 2012 at 2:45 pm
In response to dakine01 @ 29

Yes, very much so.

Benjamin Kallos March 18th, 2012 at 2:46 pm

For this book you became a “super volunteer,” but campaigns are pressure cookers that only last for a short while. They are so intense you make note of staffers and volunteers exclaiming their inability to remain in the environment. How did you avoid “going native?” How did you keep your cool and maintain your academic discipline while you were in the heart of things?

hackworth1 March 18th, 2012 at 2:46 pm

Mr. N and Mr. K,

What are your thoughts re; the Obama-rham dismantling of the winning Dean 50 State Strategy?

IMHO, it defies logic.

Please expound in any way.

Mauimom March 18th, 2012 at 2:48 pm

I’ve been told by some top operatives “you know your candidate will win when phonebanking recipients start threatening to call the cops if they get another call.” The reality is that even after such a threat the voter is still probably going to get a GOTV call on Election Day.

The voter may GET a GOTV call on Election Day, but I think your “top operative” seriously underestimates the anger and disgust out here among “traditional” Democrats — i.e. those of us who strongly supported Obama by are so pissed off that there’s no way, no number of GOTV calls, that will get us to vote for him.

To the polls? Yes. But voting Third Party.

“We Suck Less” and “Scary Scary Republicans” just ain’t gonna do it.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen March 18th, 2012 at 2:48 pm

Teddy, it is interesting if you have written to Himes about other matters, and especially if you have expressed disagreement or disappointment.

I don’t know this of the top of my head, but my sense is that constituency communications are not mixed with campaign communications for legal reasons. Getting of a call list from a campaign unfortunately requires being rather rude to some poor person on the phone bank so they’ll take you down as “refused”.

I don’t know whether getting off the potential donor list requires donating to the RNC a couple of times… Cynthia and Ben may have experience with this (I didn’t study fundraising systematically, but focused on the ground war/field operations).

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen March 18th, 2012 at 2:52 pm
In response to hackworth1 @ 33

That’s “back to normalcy” in a way, the DNC has for a long time been 99% oriented towards the presidential election and hence the swing states, not the whole country.

Dean’s 50-state strategy, an attempt to invest a, in the grand picture relatively limited, but still significant, amount of money in party-building activities across all states was the exception, not the rule. Obviously, something is going to get lost somewhere along the way.

The cost to spreading resources nationally was never really examined because 2006 and 2008 turned out so well as they did, but if 2008 had been lost narrowly, the 50 state strategy might be remembered less fondly than it is today.

Mauimom March 18th, 2012 at 2:52 pm

I guess my follow-up question would be: how do you fashion your “campaign message” when what you’ve got to work with is “we suck less” and “the other party will screw you more”?

My guess would be that all the “look what Obama’s done” messages are being greeted by laughter and derision by all but the terminally stupid, so the campaign’s reduced to “we suck less.”

Can you really motivate your voters in such a scenario? [Particularly against some really, really rabid guys on the other side.]

Dearie March 18th, 2012 at 2:54 pm

One gets off the mailing list by gathering up all…and I mean all!….of the materials that come in the mail and stuffing them into the pre-paid envelope and sending them right back at the candidate’s expense. Sometimes it takes several repeats of this method. Evenually some damned fool at the home office ‘gets’ that you don’t want whatever it is they are trying to sell. Seems a silly way to run a mailing list, but whatever.

Benjamin Kallos March 18th, 2012 at 2:56 pm

HackWorth1, Rasmus please correct me if I misread, but in the book and in experience, Dean’s 50-state strategy evolved into “Organizing for America” where Obama continued to maintain an organizing infrastructure especially around issues like the Health Care debate. As far as I know, organizers were deployed in all 50 states. While we all know how that debate ended, the infrastructure remained though it did not have adequate resources let alone the funding and energy involved in the Presidential campaign.

Kelly Canfield March 18th, 2012 at 2:56 pm

But I’ll have to agree that such a concept “production numbers” matters, and is effective. Example:

I had very little time but high interest in the CO SEN Primary between Bennet and challenger Andy Romanoff. I was a Romanoff backer, and contacted their campaign who was quite nimble about accepting my level of active participating contribution.

I asked about weaknesses and they said “phone banking, rural CO.” I said great, I could do these couple of Saturdays, and there was no problem.

Simultaneously, people I recognized from OFA kept calling me to do Bennet door-knocks. I imagine they were doing the same for all the geography the could cover.

Anyhow, the results mattered. Because Bennet won – not in liberal Denver where I live, but because of the ultimate effect of winning ALL the outlying areas.

Andy ended up mortgaging his home to finish the race, and that certainly wasn’t the case for the OFA folks who have hijacked the Dem party here; and Bennet needed all 28,000 of that outlying vote margin to nail the race.

masaccio March 18th, 2012 at 2:57 pm

I wonder if there are studies of why people volunteer for campaigns. A lot of the people I know who do it are identify as democrats, and aren’t really that interested in policies that the Democrats actually enact. It seems a lot like rooting for a professional football team, not a set of ideas.

Mauimom March 18th, 2012 at 2:57 pm
In response to Dearie @ 38

It helps to write nasty messages on the in-coming that you send back.

Also, on most e-mails, there’s an “unsubscribe” link. After a few clicks, it usually works. FWIW, I haven’t heard from Obama in a L-O-N-G time.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen March 18th, 2012 at 2:57 pm

I did and I didn’t stay detached.

Being a researcher always makes you a bit of an outsider, and requires considerable discipline so as to not be taken “hostage” by any one group. I was never fully a volunteer, and clearly not a staffer or a paid canvasser either, I was neither here nor there, and that helps maintain a certain distance.

But of course, when you spent long days with people over months engaged in work for a common cause, you cease being entirely detached, and in my view, there is nothing wrong with this. I’d maintain that the book I’ve written is analytically independent from both the campaigns and my own personal opinions and sympathies. Being a good researcher does not, in my view, require other-worldly distance from what one is researching, only discipline and analytical judgement, and willingness to call it as you see it.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen March 18th, 2012 at 2:59 pm

It’s true OFA has had national reach, and that the re-election campaign may have it, but as far as I’ve understood, this is different from the 50 state strategy in that the latter channeled resources through state parties rather than a centrally-controlled operation.

Mauimom March 18th, 2012 at 3:00 pm

But, as we learned yesterday in discussing with Ari Berman of “Herding Donkeys,” all of the OFA efforts are solely devoted to Obama’s re-election, nothing to state matters.

And, as you may have read last week, Obama and the DNC told state folks that they’re “on their own” — i.e., expect no money from us.

Teddy Partridge March 18th, 2012 at 3:01 pm
In response to Dearie @ 38

Yes, this is what I mean by “inbound” exactly. As long as campaign consultants and managers treat their work as having complex and multilayered outputs to achieve a single transient voter input — our vote, on a specific date, for a specific person — they won’t understand how voters change their minds, and pay attention through an election cycle until the next.

Being able to extrapolate from “inbound” USPS submissions like yours, Dearie, as well as lengthy Facebook complaints and emails to the incumbent’s office and campaign headquarters, are important to constructive engagement.

But I don’t think they are happening, if I read the responses I’ve gotten here correctly. I wonder why not?

Cynthia Kouril March 18th, 2012 at 3:01 pm

re: donor lists. In some cases it doesn’t matter if you’ve never donated. If you are a prime voter, you are pretty much going to get a donation solicitation. If you ever donated your time, you are going to get a donations solicaition.

I went to the campaign school up at Yale Law School (which I heatily recommend) and the theory goes that if you can get a voter to donate to you, any amount of $, that voter will feel that they have invested in you and will not fail to vote for you. (the exception being big donors who paper both sides of a contest with $)

So, when you are doing voter targeting and trying to figure out the likelyhood that particular voter will vote for you one a scale of 1 to 5
–> one being certainly will vote for you, 5 being certainly will not vote for you<– the voter who make a $ donation, is a 1.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen March 18th, 2012 at 3:02 pm
In response to masaccio @ 41

There’s a bit of that, the old “yellow dog Democrat” sentiment, that anything is better than the other party, a very partisan and politics (rather than policy) oriented view of campaigns and elections. But there’s also much more, a bit of idealism, a bit of community feeling, a bit of sense of civic obligation, and a bit of getting a kick out of it. Most volunteers have a mix of idealistic and more mundane motivations, and there is nothing wrong with that–campaigns and activists alike would be well-served if they are explicit about this and work with people’s various and diverse motives.

Benjamin Kallos March 18th, 2012 at 3:03 pm

Teddy, My experience is that local campaign are doing their best with limited resources and data that comes from behind a curtain as it were. A volunteer or staffer rarely has the authority to take someone off the list.

With regard to the question posed by Rasmus about government versus campaign communications the answer is that there is a separation. Even if government communications staff is volunteering as campaign communications staff. So a letter on an issue to the government office doesn’t mean the campaign office will know.

Cynthia Kouril March 18th, 2012 at 3:03 pm

I would argue that 2006 and 2008 turned out so well B/C of the 50 state strategy and returning to “normal” had, ahem, not optimum results

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen March 18th, 2012 at 3:05 pm

Teddy, part of this, I think, is about the organizational difference between candidate-centered and party-centered campaigning. Candidate-centered campaigning is overwhelmingly about winning this election, for this person, this time. Party-centered campaigning can allow for losing battles while winning the war, either in other districts or states, or some other time. But it requires a strong and legitimate center of decision, and American parties rarely have that–there’s no there there to take the kind of far-sighted, future-oriented decisions really cultivating support requires.

Cynthia Kouril March 18th, 2012 at 3:06 pm

OFA was evolved from the Obama camapign. the 50 state strategy had to do with puttin gorganizers on the ground in states where we had not been competive and supporting Congressional candidates in those states.

OFA, as far as I know, has always been Obama centric

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen March 18th, 2012 at 3:07 pm
In response to Cynthia Kouril @ 50

I’m sympathetic to that view, it is just hard empirically and analytically to disentangle what’s about organization and resource allocation, what’s about activist enthusiasm, what’s about more structural factors like the economy, what’s about people’s perception of the candidates, the issues on the agenda etc etc.

Benjamin Kallos March 18th, 2012 at 3:07 pm
In response to masaccio @ 41

Rasmus, this question is inspired by Masaccio, and forgive me for taking the conversation in this direction but the success of political campaign can often be measured by the number of relationships and often marriage that come from people who meet while volunteering or working. I have two close friends at New York Democratic Lawyers Council (http://NYDLC.org) that met their spouses on the campaign trail, including one the organizations Co-Chairs.

Can you share any stories from the campaign that didn’t make the book or detail why that element may not have been covered as in depth?

Teddy Partridge March 18th, 2012 at 3:07 pm
In response to Cynthia Kouril @ 47

And, as my experience (and that of many others, I am sure) shows, once you’re a ONE you’re a ONE all the way, from your first cigarette ’til your last dying day!

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen March 18th, 2012 at 3:07 pm

Ben, thanks for clarifying the constituency/campaign communications issue.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen March 18th, 2012 at 3:08 pm
In response to Mauimom @ 42

It’s comforting to know there /are/ ways out of these requests…

Dearie March 18th, 2012 at 3:08 pm

BK@39: In other words, Obama stole the infrastructure of the 50 state stragedy and turned it to his own purposes. And that is good because Why????

Cynthia Kouril March 18th, 2012 at 3:08 pm
In response to Mauimom @ 45

WHich is nuts because it ignores the efficiences from leveraging the same volunteers to work o both national and local camapaigns at the same time. It’s just a s easy to lit drop for 3 campaigns at once as for 2

Cynthia Kouril March 18th, 2012 at 3:12 pm

Actually, I think it also had to with lingering emotional exhaustion from 2008. I for one wore so many hats in the 2008 and race and did so many events in a single day in the weeks leading up to Eday, that I was fried afterwards and just could not believe that 2 years had already gone by when it was time for the midterm elections.

I was still emotionally exhausted and just sick of thinking about politics. Obviously, I’ve since recovered

Cynthia Kouril March 18th, 2012 at 3:13 pm

LOL teddy

Benjamin Kallos March 18th, 2012 at 3:15 pm
In response to Dearie @ 58

Dearie, I think Cynthia Kouril an d Rasmus Kleis Nielsen have illustrated the differences between the 50-state strategy and OFA where I was more vague. It is often said that in our current battles we are often fighting using strategies based on our last battle. For Obama, in many states including New York where I am from he was running against Senator Clinton a former First Lady with deep roots in the Democratic Party nationally. When Obama got the Democratic nomination, rather than work through local state parties, it seems that Obama simply bolstered his campaign offices with whatever support the local state parties would offer. Following the victory Obama continued this strategy.

You should see the flow charts in D.C. detailing the infrastructure that is now laterally split between the parallels of the White House, OFA and DNC.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen March 18th, 2012 at 3:15 pm

Ben, of course I wanted to get a P rating from the Motion Picture Association of America for the film version, so some stuff had to be left out… Seriously, I’d say one area in particular I haven’t written about is the internal fighting within the campaign organizations themselves, and the interference from outside players like the DCCC and the state parties, who will sometimes try to influence decisions and staffing position

These include the “shake-ups” the press loves to write about. Like all organizations, campaign organizations have internal disagreements, office politics, and some people are ambitious and want to move on or up and try to bend the candidate’s ear. We need to recognize this to understand campaigns–even very disciplined ones like Bush in 2000 and 2004 and Obama in 2008 will had infighting and internal disagreements that sometimes got in the way of getting things done and pulling in the same direction–but sometimes, I’d say that this everyday infighting is blown out of proportion, so I chose not to chronicle it in my book. I’ve tried to focus instead on some of the organizational and inter-organizational dynamics that lead to this infighting and the tensions between staffers and volunteers and others that some of you have brought up tonight.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen March 18th, 2012 at 3:18 pm
In response to Cynthia Kouril @ 60

Cynthia, good you bring this issue of burn-out up–politics is hard work, for the candidates, for the staffers, for many, many volunteers, and sometimes external observers forget this. I have tremendous respect for the energy and enthusiasm of many people working or volunteering on campaigns, and for those who haven’t thought through what is involved, I’d recommend reading… my book? Yes, but also, Richard Cramer’s old classic “What it Takes”, from way before 24/7 rolling news and the internet, which I think really manages to convey how this whole process makes sometimes inhumane demands on many of the people involved.

Benjamin Kallos March 18th, 2012 at 3:20 pm

As was detailed in the book, if you volunteer on a campaign long enough and do a good job you often get the label “super volunteer,” which is often followed by a job offer on the campaign or even on the other side of a successful campaign such as in the government office.

In your case Rasmus, you were a “super volunteer” and offered paid positions.

Do you ever regret not having said yes to join the staff of one of the campaigns as it would have provided more access and who knows perhaps a different perspective if you had ended up promoted into the DNC or DCCC itself?

Teddy Partridge March 18th, 2012 at 3:23 pm

Congratulations and thank you.

Our Liberal Media™ journalists and ‘reporters’ find it much easier to write about the junior-high personality squabbles of the people they drink with after work than write about (ewwwww!) policy. In this they are led by national enterprises like Politico and The Daily Caller.

I think you made the right call. While “Game Change” will always be the best seller because DC drives political book sales, and DC likes personality writing, your book sounds much more useful to candidates and operatives alike.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen March 18th, 2012 at 3:25 pm

Ben–on taking a paid position. Was I tempted? A little bit. I find politics very interesting etc etc. But I’m glad I didn’t try to pursue that route here (it would have been difficult as I’m not a US citizen and that complicates matters).

The reason is that I wanted to write a book about ground war campaigns, and one of the key things about them is that they are not only about staffers, but very much also about volunteers and paid part-timers, and in so far as one fully joins one of these communities, you lose a lot of access to the others. I wanted to tell everyone’s story (which you never really can, but you can try), not just the staffers’ story.

Benjamin Kallos March 18th, 2012 at 3:29 pm

It seems like a lot of the conversation today has focused on frustration with electronic mail and mailers, with some folks touching on the unending phone calls.

Given the recent trend towards “personalized political communications” do you think the trend of its growth will continue? Is there room for improvement on door-knocks and personal phone-calls?

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen March 18th, 2012 at 3:36 pm

There is a lot of room for improvement, no question–in particular in high-stakes and well-resourced campaigns like we’ll see in the fall.

It goes back to the problem that Cynthia brought up and what I call goal-displacement. For organizational reasons, a lot of the focus ends up being on quantity, how many calls and knocks can you churn out?

But that’s not what this is supposed to be about–it is supposed to be about contacting people so that you can persuade them to vote differently or motivate those who wouldn’t vote to do so.

And doing that effectively calls for training, basic training of paid canvassers and the like who sometimes don’t even know who the candidate is, what the candidate stands for, or what the candidate is running for (Jon Corzine has infamously bussed into New Jersey people hired en masse at homeless shelters in Philadelphia when his campaign couldn’t get enough “bodies” for GOTV). And even when you have knowledgeable volunteers (or paid people), it is worth working with them to train their pitch, their personal story, on how to deal with voters who might be angry, disappointed, disenchanted, disillusioned etc.

We all understand these feelings, and a boilerplate script does nothing to address them. Many volunteers have their own ways of doing so, but campaigns could work much more proactively with volunteers and others knocking on doors and making calls to make sure that they are trained to interact with people and not just rattle off some script. Personalized political communication can get a lot more personalized than it currently is.

Teddy Partridge March 18th, 2012 at 3:37 pm

I think phone-calling has reached its nadir. And it, hopefully, over. Not just robo-calling (from which the politicians have exempted themselves from bans and lists) but also generally. With cell-phones, people are simply not as likely to be sitting at the desk in their study, smoking their pipe, awaiting your call. Or sitting on the sofa ready to mute the TV when a political supporter calls.

I don’t want to get a phone call, even from a friend, about a politician s/he’s supporting. Send me an email, or a FB message, with some links so i can read about your politician. Followup in a few days, “What did you think? Would you like to donate? Here’s how!” Maybe mention it when i see you next.

I live in an apartment building that doesn’t permit solicitors. And while we used to tell volunteers, “You aren’t solicitors! Go ahead in!” I know full well that one call to our super would get folks thrown out.

I suppose door-knocking is good for one thing: it builds loyal volunteer teams. But I do remember scrambling on Friday nights to put together neighborhood lists and folders: “We’ve got fifteen volunteers here tomorrow at 10am! Let’s be ready for them!” So maybe it was make-work on both sides?

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen March 18th, 2012 at 3:38 pm

One example that was used in some cases is Marshall Ganz approach to “practiced storytelling”. But a more prosaic example is the kind of training that would be considered essential, taken for granted, when it came to telemarketing, service sector jobs, basic fundraising calls for a college or non-profit, but that most campaigns do not have the resources to, or chose not to, offer.

Dearie March 18th, 2012 at 3:40 pm

Well, we know what the Republicans stand for, so it shouldn’t be hard to train their door-to-door squad on how to talk about contraception and ‘rape-wands’ and such….

But what does Obama stand for? How can one train door-to-door ‘greeters’ to say, “We are less bad than they are?”

What do you hear about the Democratic Party on its plans for rousing the vote this time around?

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen March 18th, 2012 at 3:41 pm

Teddy, I hear what you say, and like everyone else, I’m not all that keen on calls and knocks, but another way of looking at this–one several volunteers expressed to me when I spoke to them on the campaign trail–is that politics is a public issue.

If we accept this line of reasoning, while people have a right to privacy, politics affects them whether they want it to or not, and hence it is legitimate to at least try to initiate a personal conversation about politics with them, even when they are at home.

Of course, the person at the receiving end always has the upper hand–he or she can close the door or put down the phone, but, however annoying it sometimes seems, the attempt to contact people still seem legitimate to me.

Benjamin Kallos March 18th, 2012 at 3:44 pm

Readers seem frustrated with the death of the 50-state strategy in favor of the new Obama-centric OFA. You mentioned America Votes (http://www.americavotes.org) in your book, which is building out an issue oriented version of the VAN voter file with Catalist. What do you think their impact will be?

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen March 18th, 2012 at 3:46 pm
In response to Dearie @ 72

Here are two extreme versions of where we are heading, neither of which I find convincing, but that illustrates the tensions–

1) politicians have rediscovered the power of personalized political communication, which is labor-intensive, and know that volunteers are more effective than paid people, and hence start to be more response to the base, and therefore change their positions etc and give people more to be enthusiastic about.

2) politicians have rediscovered the power of personalized political communication, which is labor-intensive, but think that volunteers are too difficult and demanding to be worth the trouble, and therefore just hire paid people and telemarketers to do the work for them, while running on whatever messages they are either personally committed to or told by consultants might work leaving activists even more turned off.

The thing is that the same activist energies that can propel a Barack Obama or a Ronald Reagan to the White House can also secure the nomination for a George McGovern or a Barry Goldwater. That’s part of the reason operatives are sometimes something akin to afraid of activists–on the one hand they want them, and need them, but on the other hand, they may not want to go where the activists are heading, because they are unsure of whether the electorate will follow.

BevW March 18th, 2012 at 3:51 pm

As we come to the end of this Book Salon discussion,

Rasmus, Thank you for stopping by the Lake and spending the afternoon with us discussing your new book and inside the campaign communications.

Ben, Thank you very much for Hosting this great Book Salon.

Everyone, if you would like more information:

Rasmus’s website (Univ of Oxford) and book (Ground Wars)

Ben’s website (KallosForCouncil) and Kallos Consulting

Thanks all, Have a great week.

If you want to contact the FDL Book Salon: FiredoglakeBookSalon@gmail.com

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen March 18th, 2012 at 3:53 pm

America Votes, that’s a good one to bring up. I haven’t followed it closely since 2008 and it is one of those things that is sort of below the radar of everyday political coverage, but let me say a few things–

1) More coordination is obviously a good thing from both an instrumental point of view and in terms of not inundating voters with too many calls to the same poor swing voters in swing states, and seemingly technical initiatives like sharing lists and expertise through vehicles like America Votes can help with this. That’s important.

2) But that’s also what America Votes is about, it is about infrastructure and expertise, it is unlikely to be able to generate the enthusiasm the fuels a good field campaign, to mobilize many volunteers. In my view, ACT (“America Coming Together”) proved this very clearly in 2004, however rational, a temporary new political action committee with a generic name that no one outside D.C. has ever heard of is not a good vehicle for mobilizing activists. You need organizations, names, and relations that mean something for people, or they won’t come (or they’ll go elsewhere).

3) Which leaves me to the last point about America Votes and the rest, which is not something that has been brought up here but that I just feel compelled to add in this context–the importance of existing relationships, communities, and names/symbols that mean something for people means that existing member-based interests groups continue to be tremendously important for how ground wars are waged. You’ll hear a lot about what OSW and the Tea Party will mean for this election. But old and unfashionable players like the labor movement and the religious right are, in my view, more likely to play a big role on the ground. For all their decline and all the tensions between the party and organized labor, unions are still the most important allies of the Democratic Party in virtually any race.

Dearie March 18th, 2012 at 3:54 pm

RKN@75: Thanks for your thoughtful answer. This coming election should be very interesting (if disturbing). I hope you are taking notes, and I’ll be looking for a follow up book from you! Thanks for being here with us today.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen March 18th, 2012 at 3:55 pm

Bev, thanks for having us. Ben, thanks for hosting. All in the FDL community–thanks for your questions and comments. Good luck to everyone in the upcoming campaign season. Remember: though it is hard, stressful, and sometimes unsatisfying and endlessly frustrating, politics matters.

PeasantParty March 18th, 2012 at 3:56 pm

Just a quick one before you go.

Most everyone wants to get rid of Black Box voting. Do you have thoughts of the same, if not, why not?

Benjamin Kallos March 18th, 2012 at 3:57 pm

Teddy, I think much of our conversation has focused around the population of those frustrated by unwelcome communications from campaigns. It is important to note that in a well constructed target universe campaigns hit more likely voters who are actually interested in hearing the message. You can read a lot of the anecdotes in the book. For every horror story about getting cursed out over the phone I have had many more pleasant conversations with voters seeking to learn more. When door knocking in a suit one hot Sunday afternoon in Pennsylvania (that is where New Yorkers usually get deployed) I recall being invited to hop over the fence into a backward with two pitbulls and a couple who offered me a beer and a spot in their inflatable pool to educate them about the candidates. I am not sure it gets more friendly than that.

While more and more people only use a cell phone, voter lists now have more and more cell phones available (usually at a higher cost to the campaigns) but voters with the best voter histories (at least in New York) tend to be over 50 who still have land lines. Whether it is calling the land line of a 50+ and catching them at home or the mobile of someone else, I am not sure phone banking is going anywhere anytime soon.

Benjamin Kallos March 18th, 2012 at 4:00 pm
In response to BevW @ 76

BevW, thanks for having us.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, thank you for writing a great book and for sharing your insights today with the FDL community.

Cynthia Kouril, dakine1, Kelly Canfield, Teddy Partridge, hackworth1, Mauimom, and Dearie, thank you for your participation.

Dearie March 18th, 2012 at 4:03 pm

And, hey, Benjamin…..great hosting! I’ve never been thanked personally for participating before. If I may jest: What are you running for??? “:)

BevW March 18th, 2012 at 4:05 pm
In response to Dearie @ 83

Kallos For Council (http://kallosforcouncil.com/)

Dearie March 18th, 2012 at 4:22 pm

Bev…….I didn’t know! I was being spunky……had no intention of sounding dismissive. I hope I did not insult our good host.

Teddy Partridge March 18th, 2012 at 4:49 pm

Thanks to all, great discussion.

juliania March 19th, 2012 at 7:04 am

Teddy, I’ve only just looked in here, but your first comment says it all for me. Thank you for composing that. Locally, ‘personalized campaigning’ in my small town meant that the candidate for mayor kept calling me on election day, me personally, leaving a message telling me the polls were still open. I had been half inclined to vote for him; not after that intrusion into my private life. He knew my vote had not yet been given; it actually was intimidating, and I resented that very much. I wonder if anyone talks about that kind of thing in their eagerness to get out the vote.

juliania March 19th, 2012 at 7:13 am
In response to Cynthia Kouril @ 47

And that’s why I don’t donate period. The repurcussions outweigh any small amount I can afford. It’s not a question of being lured into ongoing participation; just further aggravation that my donation is being spent and outspent on further mailings to me. And I bet there are huge numbers in the same position.

I was going to donate to Jill Stein. And then I remembered what always happens. So, I won’t.

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